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GRAMOPHONE (05/2023)
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Reviewer :
Lindsay Kemp

Nigel North’s fourdisc series for Linn of ‘Bach on the Lute’ back in the 1990s was rightly admired: ‘performances that combine good style and intelligence with heart and sensibility, and in which phrases are naturally breathed through articulation and dynamics’, wrote John Duarte of the first release (4/95). So what is this now from him under the title of Bach’s ‘Complete Lute Works & Other Transcriptions’? Ah well, back then he was excusing himself from the some of the lutehostile technical problems thrown up by the fact that Bach was probably writing for the Lautenwerck – a keyboard instrument that imitated the sound of the lute – and allowing himself the treat of making his own, more satisfyingly idiomatic transcriptions of the Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas and the Solo Cello Suites. Now, almost 30 years later, he says ‘it is finally time for me to embrace “Bach’s so-called lute music”’.

This means that there are only two pieces common to both sets: the Suite, BWV995, better known as the Fifth Cello Suite, which North considers to be the only one ‘worthy to be called real lute music’, and the Partita, BWV1006a (Third Violin Partita). Comparisons with the 1990s versions (his own transcriptions, remember) reveal more spacious tempos and a softer and more intimate manner. Where the firmly projected earlier performance appeared to revel in the freedom and exhilaration of textures designed by North for his own highly competent fingers, here we get what might seem a more wary approach (is the cautious shift at 2'20" in the Prelude a way of negotiating one of Bach’s lute awkwardnesses?), but which on more considered listening could just as easily be a reflection of a relaxed acquaintance with these marvellous pieces, one that relishes the sheer beauty of how Bach put his music together, savours its harmonies and lingers at its important corners. How many players take such care over such things as the Gavotte II in BWV995 and the Menuet II in BWV1006a?

This way of thinking pervades the entire set. Preludes such as those of BWV998, BWV999 and BWV1006a flow with finely judged give and take, and gently phase with light and shade. Fugues such as BWV1000 and BWV998 (so beautifully threaded with the chorale tune Vom Himmel hoch) progress with sure but flexible tread. Dance movements have a nicely swinging momentum, for instance in the Allemande of BWV996 or the Loure of BWV1006a.

North adds three transcriptions of his own. The D minor Toccata and Fugue works well, and in keeping with the rest is less motoric on the lute than the organ, but the chorale prelude Wachet auf stumbles – somehow the texture just doesn’t feel right. Best of all is the A minor Solo Flute Partita, BWV1013, its opening broken chords gaining a pleasing sense of dialogue from North’s subtle skill. Here, as in so many places in this set, is musicianship of wisdom and experience.

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